Judge rules in favor of Montana youths in landmark climate decision

Figure 1.1. Total cases over time, US and non-US, to 31 May 2021 from Source: Global Trends in Climate Litigation, London School of Economics, 2021 republished in Harvard Law School Forumon Corporate Governance

‘This is a monumental decision,’ said a lawyer for the young plaintiffs. The ruling could influence how judges handle similar cases in other states.

Plaintiffs in Held v. Montana arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, Mont., in June. A Montana court ruled in their favor on Monday. (Thom Bridge/AP)

In the first ruling of its kind nationwide, a Montana state court decided Monday in favor of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. The provision is accordingly unconstitutional, the court said.

“This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate,” said Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought Held v. Montana. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”

The sweeping win, one of the strongest decisions on climate change ever issued by a court, could energize the environmental movement and usher in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change, experts say.

The ruling … invalidates the provision blocking climate considerations [on impacts of energy projects]

The ruling — which invalidates the provision blocking climate considerations — also represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to push back against government policies and industrial activities they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial. Those youths are elated by the decision, according to Our Children’s Trust.

Sariel Sandoval, member of the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille and Diné Tribes, is one of 16 youth plaintiffs suing the state of Montana over its contributions to climate change. (Amy Osborne for The Washington Post)
Badge Busse, 15, plaintiff, in the forested area near his home in Kalispell, Mont. (Taylyr Irvine for The Washington Post)

Though the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report from the U.N. Environment Program and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The report said about three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or concluded cases were filed before courts in the United States.

the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years

But the number of successes internationally is growing, as is the diversity of those taking these cases to court, including a rise in legal action brought by youths, women’s groups, local communities and Indigenous people. Of the cases that have been decided, more than half have had outcomes favorable to climate action, according to a 2023 report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

The Montana case will face an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R), confirmed Monday. She decried the ruling as “absurd” and said Montanans cannot be blamed for changing the climate.

The Montana youths behind a historic climate lawsuit, and the places they love

“Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states,” said Flower. “It should have been here as well.”

rise in legal action brought by youths, women’s groups, local communities and Indigenous people

Despite the track record of dismissals for youth-led climate cases in the United States, experts said the Montana youths had an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Montana, a major coal producer, is home to the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project.

The youths focused on this constitutional right across five days of emotional testimony in June, where they made claims about injuries they have suffered as a result of climate change. A 15-year-old with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when isolating with covid during a period of intense wildfire smoke. Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff for whom the lawsuit is named, detailed how extreme weather has hurt her family’s ranch.

Held testified that a favorable judgment would make her more hopeful for the future. “I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana has to take responsibility for our part in that,” she said.

Attorneys for the state countered that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small. If the law in question were altered or overturned, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said, there would be “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate.

Turbines spin at a wind farm along the Montana-Wyoming state line. (Emma H. Tobin/AP)

The state began and rested its defense on the same day, bringing the trial to an unexpectedly early close on June 20. In a pivot from its expected defense disputing the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the state focused instead on arguing that the legislature should weigh in on the contested law, not the judiciary.

Russell derided the case in his closing statement as a “week-long airing of political grievances that properly belong in the legislature, not a court of law.”

Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center, said the change in strategy came as a surprise: “Everyone expected them to put on a more vigorous defense,” he said. “And they may have concluded that the underlying science of climate change was so strong that they didn’t want to contest it.”

“… they may have concluded that the underlying science of climate change was so strong that they didn’t want to contest it.”

The state’s defense was unsuccessful. Judge Kathy Seeley determined that the state’s emissions could be fairly traced to the legal provision blocking Montana from reviewing the climate impacts of energy projects. She further wrote that the state’s emissions and climate change have caused harm to the environment and the youth plaintiffs.

“Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries,” she wrote in the ruling.

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